In the photograph, a newly green vista rose to meet asundering hills that melded into hazy mountain peaks disappearing into a vast firmament dusty with clouds. Below, yellow green grass twisted in the plains, idly stroking the breeze like fingers upon a face. Browned and sun-golden buffalo held still in the field for a short time with their massive, bovine heads lowered to the young sprouted stalks. After a time, I imagine that the creatures trekked through the plain, basking in the spring sun and flicking their tails at buzzing insects as they went, moving on at the urging of their wild instincts.
Desolate. That’s what my mom said when I declared my intention of driving to Wyoming, a desolate place. But it was the state that she had lived in for two years, the state she had left Arkansas for. Come to Wyoming! Her older sister who already lived there had said. There’s lots of men! It was the state she had met my dad in shortly after she moved, the least populated one in the United States. It should have meant something to her at some point. She hadn’t really gone to look for a man, but she found one anyway. I wasn’t going to look for one either, but I was going to look for something just like she had.
She had gone during the big moves of the early 1980s, seeking freedom and a new beginning. What was I looking for there? I knew she wanted to ask, dare me to say it to her, but she was too scared I would actually tell her. An apparition, spirit, memory, or something along those lines. That’s what I wanted, and she knew that without me saying. But I told her I just wanted to take some pictures for my paintings. I could diddle some landscapes from them in oil paint or something. Place pictures of them from then on top of the land and tell a piece story from their time there. And that’s true, but not the whole truth. I want to stand in a spot that he stood in. I want to see if the trailers they stayed in were still there. I want to see the places along the roadside they stopped to take pictures at. Above all, I want to see if he is there in one form or another.
Odd though it may be, I wouldn’t actually mind seeing his ghost. My aunt, his older sister, took his aging yellow Labrador retriever, Maggie, home with her to Minnesota after the funeral. Maggie is old and fat, very fat. Though not as fat as she was a few years ago when I used to call her Sausage due to the roundness of her girth and roll of fat over her tailbone. Dad, used to his former dog that had to be part Malamute, fed her a lot of food. When his sister Sheri found out, she made him stop and take her outside more. Maggie is, miraculously, still alive but with a lamed jut of a walk as she now helplessly follows after Sheri with my dad gone. Anyway, Sheri claims that Maggie has gotten up multiple times in the middle of the night to follow his invisible spirit into the room he slept in when he came to visit then lays down on the floor next to the bed, just like she used to. While I was happy that Sheri told me that, I find it hard to believe that he would pay his dog a visit and not me, his only child, his only daughter. I was the one that made him get that dog in the first place when I was twelve-years-old.
I am not the praying type, and I am not very religious, inadvertently just like my dad and unlike my semi-Baptist mom, but I prayed for a very specific request the very night he died and haven’t stopped since. Weeks went by then months, now getting close to a year, and every night I prayed for a sign, any sign. Also, I am pretty oblivious, so I asked that the sign be blatant. I don’t disbelieve in ghosts and have often found the possibility of them exciting, having watched ghost television shows since I was a child. My boyfriend and I have even toured haunted locations in towns that we visit, Eureka Springs, New Orleans, Little Rock. Jared has felt chills and presences from something supernatural, but I never have. If there was a ghost about, it would have to knock me upside my head to notice it, and I told God or whoever as much in my prayers. However, I may have just received a sign, and it, coincidentally, came in the form of yellow lab, though not Maggie.
I find that dogs often mark important moments in a person’s life. For example, not long after my mom met my dad in Wyoming, she got her first dog that was all her own. It wasn’t a childhood pet or a family dog, it was hers, a fluffy black puppy that she named Bear. Later, when my parents moved to Phoenix, Arizona, they got another dog, a large black and tan dog they named BJ. For me, my first all-my-own dog came when I was in my last semester of college, working around the clock, locked in my room, and lonely, unsure of how life would be after graduation. While on a visit to my mom’s home in Oklahoma, I saw an ad for a fluffy, honey-brown puppy. I also named this dog Bear, and it couldn’t be avoided. I had liked the name Maple, but Jared said it was too girly. Now this puppy, being an Australian Shepherd, didn’t have a tail. Also, she was born on a backwoods farm during the Oklahoma summer and kept outside because she was supposed to be a cattle herding dog, so she had learned to lay flat on her belly in the dirt to keep cool, looking just like a bear skin rug. This made her Bear Becker III, because BJ stood for Bear Junior. And after my dad died, I got another puppy, marking another sadness in me. However, we did not name the puppy BJ, we named her Copper.
Maggie, on the other hand, was a pushed blessing I put on my Dad. After my parents divorced, my dad took BJ since my mom got me. Bear the First had died before I was born from poison in our neighbor’s garage in Phoenix. When I was about twelve, BJ died of old age and I quickly recognized the hole in my dad’s life with BJ gone. At the time, I didn’t realize that BJ was the last link he still had to my mom and the life he had before that was happier. He had never remarried, and if he dated it was never serious enough for him to tell me about it. He had followed us to Arkansas from Arizona but had decided Arkansas was close enough when we moved to Oklahoma. Or maybe he was told to stay put. At the time, when BJ died, I just thought my dad needed a dog.
Shortly after BJ died, he came to see me. As was our routine for years, up until the day he died, we planned to see a movie. We both had a passion for movies, and we were both really good at guessing the plots, whispering to each other what we thought was going to happen next. When I was younger, I would sit on his lap during the movie, leaning against his chest. I still remember clearly the visit when I slipped off his lap and into my seat, deciding for myself that I was too old when I noticed no other child was doing that. Now, I think about how that must have stung him. On the way to the newly built theater in town, I saw a sign for yellow lab puppies for sale. We had time before the movie, so I told him to pull over because I wanted to see the puppies, a plan already forming in my young mind. We pulled into a semi-dilapidated house with a rusted, chain-link fence in the back where we could hear the dogs yapping. I picked up a puppy, petted it, and told him he needed it. Still fairly young, I had no qualms pointing his loneliness out to him. He smiled slightly, almost shyly, then came back and got her after we saw the movie. Later, he named her Maggie for the Rod Stewart song. Fourteen years later, she outlives him.
I have been in Paonia, Colorado, for nearly two weeks when I discovered that Lyman, Wyoming, wasn’t terribly far away. It was only six hours away, which was nothing compared to the fifteen hours it had taken me to drive to Paonia from Oklahoma. I had to go, needed it, needed it badly. The instinct to travel there was deep and almost violent. After months of wanting to feel just an inch closer to him, I was closer to Wyoming than I had ever been, and it’s essentially where I began. I called my mom after the revelation, unable to get ahold of Jared who had been my first choice to tell, only for her to pour doubt onto me and smolder my enthusiasm. I knew that she would do that, but I had called her anyway. She was currently on vacation with my stepfather in coastal Alabama, sitting on a beach, and celebrating twenty years of marriage. The first thing she said was desolate. It’s desolate there, Chelsey. I don’t know.
I didn’t call for permission. I called because my excitement burned, and I needed to share it. I should have known she wouldn’t have caught it. She dropped it like a hot potato. Anything relating to my dad, she shriveled away. On the other end of the phone, I could picture her wide, almost debatable eyes and crinkled forehead. She pretended her first marriage was a quick affair that resulted in me then dissolved just as quickly. As a child, I swallowed that lie like brownie batter. However, after putting a timeline together through clues I gathered over the years, I know that’s not the case. They were together for about thirteen years before they divorced. I was around four-years-old. They hadn’t been married for thirteen years, but they had together since 1981. And from the hundreds of photos I’ve sequestered and studied thoroughly, they had been in love. And I know my dad never stopped loving her. My grandma, Mary Lou, his mom, told her so at his funeral without any malice. She just said it like the fact that it was.
Mom didn’t say I couldn’t go, because she knew that she couldn’t. But she also knew that she didn’t have to say I couldn’t go. She could bend me to her will most times with just the tone of her implication. I don’t believe she was actually worried that it was unsafe for me to drive there alone, she was uneasy of me showing interest in my dad when she refused to long ago. I wish Jared would have answered when I called him first.
As my resolve started to soften like sodden wood, still strong but spongey on the edges, I looked out of my rented cottage to see the foot of a dog disappearing up the stone steps. I was in the mostly enclosed, overgrown backyard behind the main house. Transfixed, I opened the door. A blonde tail whipped around the wall surrounding the artist residency. The dog was sopping wet and left dark pawprints on the steps. I quickly followed, passing the blossoming irises and poppies in their unkempt beds, and whistled hoarsely through cracked lips. I walked through the mirror mosaic arch in the wall, seeing my wonder reflected back in fragments. Then I saw him fully. He was alone but had a worn, reddish brown collar. He had walked in front of my secluded cottage in an even more secluded town right when I needed him to. He kept walking.
I made a guttural sound that was between a wheezy whistle and indiscernible greeting. The dog turned and looked at me. I stood still. He was taller than Maggie and less fat and at least six years younger. Not a pup, but still a healthy age despite a greying face. He didn’t come towards me. He just looked and dripped water on the gravel. He didn’t bark. He didn’t move, and I didn’t either.
My eyes felt full and heavy all of a sudden. I took a step forward and he blinked one quick blink like he was coming out of a trance, like he had just noticed me. My hands wavered in the air. Unsure if he was a nice dog, I walked back to my cottage.